First District Holds Timber Management Plan Does Not Violate CEQA

The court held that a Nonindustrial Timber Management Plan (NTMP) approved by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) authorizing logging on 615 privately owned acres in Mendocino County did not violate CEQA. Center for Biological Diversity v. Cal. Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection (Dec. 30, 2014) ___ Cal.App.4th ___, Case No. A138914.

Timberland use in California is primarily governed by the Forest Practice Act and Forest Practice Rules. An NMTP is a long-term plan for sustained yield timber production utilized by owners of less than 2500 acres of timberland and whose focus is not manufacturing forest products. Though Cal Fire’s approval of timber operations is generally subject to CEQA, the Forest Practice Act’s regulatory scheme is a certified regulatory program. An NTMP functions as the equivalent of an EIR.

In October 2008, the Bower family submitted a proposed NTMP to Cal Fire seeking authorization for timber harvesting activities northeast of Gualala. Petitioners took issue with the fact that Cal Fire approved, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) did not object to, logging activity on a 17-acre section that DFW identified as a Late Succession Forest Stand (LSFS). This LSFS was considered a potential functional nesting habitat for a threatened seabird, the marbled murrelet. At the same time, there was no known history of any actual murrelet nesting in the LSFS.

Following a preharvest inspection of the Bowers’ property, a forester asserted the LSFS had only marginal potential for marbled murrelet occupation. A revised NTMP submitted in 2009 required retention of several large-diameter trees to benefit wildlife. Cal Fire issued responses to public comments on the NTMP and approved the document, concluding that large wildlife trees were being preserved, and species largely dependent on late seral habitat features would not be adversely impacted. DFW did not submit a nonconcurrence.

Petitioners filed a petition for a writ, complaint for breach of public trust, and request for injunctive relief. Petitioners contended that Cal Fire, in approving the NTMP, had failed to comply with CEQA and the Forest Practice Rules. They insisted the cumulative impacts of the proposed logging would eliminate enough large trees in the LSFS to render the stand unsuitable for murrelet nesting. Petitioners also argued the NTMP violated the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) by authorizing logging that would be adverse to nesting habitat essential for the survival and recovery of the murrelet.

Reviewing Cal Fire’s approval under the substantial evidence standard, the court denied the petition. It characterized petitioners’ contentions as disagreements over the evidence—parties drawing “dramatically differing conclusions from the same record.” The calculations and comparisons petitioners attempted to make, even if accurate, did not offer a complete description of the resulting environment, the court stated. Furthermore, Cal Fire was entitled to choose between differing expert opinions. Petitioners failed to affirmatively show that there was no substantial evidence in the record to support Cal Fire’s findings. The court also rejected petitioners’ claims that the NTMP did not analyze a reasonable range of alternatives.

Petitioners also claimed the NTMP should have been recirculated based on “significant new information” added prior to certification. They cited to a 2009 one-page memorandum from a Cal Fire biologist recommending additional protective measures for large tree retention. Each of the biologist’s recommendations were addressed in additional mitigation measures. The court found that the memo disclosed no new environmental impacts nor any substantial increase in the severity of an impact. The mitigation measures added in response to the memo were discussed in a second review, in which petitioners participated, and were accepted eight days prior to the close of the public comment period.

Petitioners’ CESA claims failed because Cal Fire found that implementation of the plan, as mitigated, would not result in take, jeopardy, or adverse modification of habitat in violation of the CESA. That finding was supported by substantial evidence.

Petitioners’ claim against DFW also failed. Petitioners cited no authority for the proposition that an NTMP is subject to review through traditional mandamus under CCP section 1085, particularly when the petition is not directed to the agency with authority to approve or reject the project. DFW’s decision not to actively oppose Cal Fire’s decision was merely an exercise of agency discretion.